Italy - 1977)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett, Miguel Bose, Udo Kier
Genre: Horror
Director: Dario Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento & Daria Nicolodi
Cinematography: Luciano Tovoli
Composer: Goblin

You're in a foreign county, at night, during a torrential downpour. You think you can barely speak the language, but your accent makes your words unintelligible. Everyone looks at you funny, even if only because you are a stranger in a strange land. You don't really know what's going on, and you may have heard and saw something you shouldn't have, although you can't quite recall what it was. You are vulnerable, but you aren't afraid, even if you should be. Such is the setup for Dario Argento's Suspiria, one of the most terrifying films ever made, yet more of a surreal adult fair tale.

Dario Argento's early cinema thrives on dreamy, obscure, and mysterious situations such as this. It's all about the atmosphere, the trippy music while a very active camera tracks characters creeping through lushly colored corridors that may contain nothing out of the ordinary or a switchblade slasher. What little dialogue there is simply advances the throwaway plot through a numbskull level of exposition, yet a small portion of what is heard and seen is incredibly important because using your intellect to trigger the right memory will provide the key to solving the mystery.

Suspiria was my introduction to Italian horror, recommended to me because I used to always complain I like horror movies, in theory, but they almost all disappoint the hell out of me because they either worship third grade plots in the most pedantic of manners or are simply a no redeeming factor displays of gruesomeness. Suspiria's plot and dialogue are average at best, so one could easily make the argument I simply have a soft spot for it in my heart in regarding it among the greatest of films, yet it is the total disregard for these very aspects, the liberation from the script ruling with an iron fist, that makes it so exciting and totally unlike anything I'd ever seen in all the years of watching American and British horror films. Suspiria may not be the most well rounded of films, but what's good about it is off the charts awesome.

Goblin's soundtrack may be the most effective movie soundtrack, not just in horrors, but in any sort of cinema, ever. It's hardly traditional, eschewing classical music in favor of a a very dense and layered progressive rock that incorporates of all sorts of unsettling reverberating percussion, synthesizer and sound effects including sinister whispering voices, sighs, panting to signify evil forces are at work. The amazing main theme is actually very repetitive, but eerily so, as they add onto, alter, and play around it, building it slowly until you are scared out of your skin. It's a 13 note theme played first with bells and celesta to give the feeling of a children's song, but then the tone changes entirely when the guitar kicks in, and they also add synth, psychedelic percussion, and creepy raspy voiced “la-la-laing” to go with each bell note, turning it from soothing to nightmarish.

Suspiria was Goblin's second soundtrack for Argento, and if ever the argument can be made that the composer(s) resulted in a director's best work, it would be Argento's films with some version of Goblin. The band scoring his most original and inventive pieces of cinema, the three masterworks Deep Red, Suspiria, & Tenebrae as well as his incredibly ambitious Phenomena. Yes, partly Goblin came at the time when Argento was simply coming into his own as a director, full of wild inspirations and aspirations. But Argento is inarguably at his best when he lets the visuals do the talking, and with Goblin, he had the proper balance of the audio adding to the visuals and visuals adding to the audio, the artistry so high that most viewers really didn't care about the rest.

Suspiria was the last film made with the original 3-strip technicolor process. Granted, I find virtually all remakes to be of the most useless, time wasting, and plagiaristic variety, but the idea that a new version of Suspiria can be made with the modern technology is simply absurd. I mean, you can call anything you want Suspiria, but the lush super saturated color patterns are so intrinsic to the mood, the atmosphere, the very being of Suspiria that it will automatically be the worst sort of imposter. Suspiria is, brutal murders and all, one of the most beautiful films ever made, the story really told through the dreamy manipulation of sets, music, and especially floods of color.

The use of color plays an enormous part in elevating what's essentially a childhood nightmare about witches into the realm of the surreal. This is a film that is never meant to be realistic, the implausible color palette not only shifting from scene to scene, but even in the middle of a murder. Both the strength and the downfall of many of Argento's works is he creates an environment where anything can happen without necessarily having a reason or an explanation. On one hand, this frees him to go in any direction he chooses because a nightmare follows dream logic, which is to say no logic at all, but on the other, the totally implausible red herrings and diversionary set pieces he throws in because they are cool tend to confound a large portion of his audience because it becomes difficult to solve a mystery when some things need to be remembered while others need to be forgotten immediately (or at least not reflected upon).

Argento's mysteries are simplistic in the sense that the information is right in front of us, obscured more by the fact we are lazy, with dull perceptions than because we indeed see and hear things before we understand their relevance. The answer is always right in front of you, but just beyond the grasp of your comprehension. Argento's best films are, in some respect, an answer to our typical lethargy, assaulting our senses with loud music and an aggressively distorted world to force us to notice what's unusual.

Luciano Tovoli is one of the most underrated cinematographers in my opinion, and this is probably his masterwork because Suspiria is, if nothing else, one of the most splendidly artificial films ever made. Tovoli isn't as well known as some of the other greats, but you don't work multiple times with directors such as Argento, Michelangelo Antonioni, Maurice Pialat, and Ettore Scola for nothing. He ever shot the hard to find documentary on Andrei Tarkovsky Tempo di viaggio. While Tovoli's work in Valerio Zurlini's brilliant Desert of the Tartars is all about increasingly limiting the possibilities despite the desire of the mind to wander, Suspiria is just the opposite, creating an environment where the mind can't help but get carried away. Specific and predetermined actions such as flushing potentially spell tainted food down the toilet and a bat biting at a face are shot in close up, but almost the entire film is shot in deep focus wide angle, tracking and panning to reveal new aspects of the architecture.

The superb set design relies heavily on objects and colors. It's not merely dressing the scenery up, but rather partitioning the frame, using doorways, windows, mirrors, statues, and furniture to divide the frame and colors to accentuate the light from the divisions as well as lend an otherworldly quality to the proceedings. Every scene has several effects, generally revealed over time through the alteration of the framing, but it's not so much special effects as a number of little touches – rain, wind, reflections - to create a supernatural atmosphere.

Argento's films are gruesome, but even at their hardest to watch - the razor blades attached to the eyelids during his last masterpiece Opera - they never fall into the off putting variety that modern horror has lamentably fallen into with the useless torture porns of the Saw and Hostel variety. I won't deny it's dubious to glamorize murder, but Argento always does so as an artistic expression that gives voice to our fears and not so pleasant dreams, as a potential catharsis. He is painting surrealistic and symbolistic art with film rather than brushes and canvas to the point that any frame from Suspiria could be hung in a respectable gallery.

Sure, the weaknesses of Suspiria are not too difficult to point out. It isn't the most coherent or subtle film out there, and the really basic story is explained more than most of the kiddy fairy tales it emulates, but the artistry lends it a hypnotic quality. I can not only continually gaze at the artfully colored compositions and listen to the raspy prog soundtrack, I can't stop from being immersed in them, mesmerized.



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